The combination of a mild (I'm hoping) flu and the all-consuming fixation by many on Obama's speech tonight makes this a good time to raise several discrete matters worth noting:
(1) Last month, The New York Times' Charlie Savage reported that the DOJ -- in order to distinguish Julian Assange and WikiLeaks from investigative journalists -- was seeking to prove that they actively conspired beforehand with Bradley Manning to "steal" classified information, as opposed to merely receiving and then publishing it after the fact. That prosecution tactic has apparently run into a major roadblock. According to NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski, "investigators have been unable to make any direct connection between" Manning and Assange, as "there is apparently no evidence [Manning] passed the files directly to Assange, or had any direct contact with the controversial WikiLeaks figure."
If true, that would leave the Obama DOJ with two options: (1) prosecute WikiLeaks and Assange for doing nothing more than receiving and publishing classified information: an act that is simply not a crime in the U.S. and could not be prosecuted as one without criminalizing much of investigative journalism (indeed, it's no different than what The New York Times did in this case and countless other cases), or (2) defy political pressure, honor the First Amendment, and accept that Wikileaks did nothing criminal.
(2) The DOJ's apparent failure to find the evidence it needs to prosecute WikiLeaks underscores the reasons for the increasingly inhumane treatment to which Bradley Manning is being subjected. It's long been clear -- and reported -- that the Obama DOJ desperately needs Manning to incriminate Assange in order to be able to prosecute him (by, for instance, providing the Manning-Assange link that the DOJ is unable to prove). The harsh, punitive conditions under which Manning are being held is designed -- like most detainee abuse -- to force him to say what his captors want him to say (yesterday, Amnesty USA followed Amnesty International in denouncing Manning's detention conditions as "inhumane").
Not only did Quantico officials this weekend contrive reasons to deny Manning his only real reprieve from isolation -- periodic Saturday visits from his friend David House -- but they also last week made his conditions even harsher by placing him on suicide watch even though three separate brig psychiatrists said it was unwarranted. That decision resulted in this:
The suicide risk assignment meant that PFC Manning was required to remain in his cell for 24 hours a day. He was stripped of all clothing with the exception of his underwear. His prescription eyeglasses were taken away from him. He was forced to sit in essential blindness with the exception of the times that he was reading or given limited television privileges. During those times, his glasses were returned to him.
But because of all the light that has been shined on the issue of Manning's detention, the Government has now been forced to publicly admit that the imposition of these conditions was not only improper, but punitive. From Miklaszewski:
The officials told NBC News  that a U.S. Marine commander did violate procedure when he placed Manning on "suicide watch" last week.
Military officials said Brig Commander James Averhart did not have the authority to place Manning on suicide watch for two days last week, and that only medical personnel are allowed to make that call.
The official said that after Manning had allegedly failed to follow orders from his Marine guards, Averhart declared Manning a "suicide risk." Manning was then placed on suicide watch, which meant he was confined to his cell, stripped of most of his clothing and deprived of his reading glasses. . .
The order was lifted once Manning's lawyer filed a formal complaint, but clearly, the mentality of brig officials is to punish Manning -- who has been convicted of nothing -- and make life as inhumane and unbearable for him as possible, even if it means violating their own rules and abusing the oppression of "suicide watch" to torment him further. None of this will deter the blind authoritarians among us -- the long-time marchers on the Right and their newfound Obama-apologist comrades -- from citing pronouncements from brig and other military and government officials as though they're unchallengeable Gospel (that's what authoritarians, by definition, do), but for anyone minimally rational, this episode will underscore the need for serious skepticism with such claims.
The one silver lining from all of this has been the surprisingly substantial attention now being paid to the inhumane conditions of Manning's detention. Yesterday, ABC's Jake Tapper asked Robert Gibbs about it; MSNBC yesterday featured an excellent interview with Jane Hamsher about what is being done to Manning; the Amnesty and U.N. actions have brought even more attention; and as part of Miklaszewski's featured report last night, he noted that "U.S. military officials also strongly denied allegations that Manning . . . . has been 'tortured' and held in 'solitary confinement' without due process." This has become a real issue, as it should be.
(3) There's an emerging theme circulating in some precincts that those protesting the conditions of Manning's detention are somehow acting improperly because they ignore -- and even implicitly endorse -- all the other cases of prisoners in the U.S. being held in prolonged isolation. This claim was first concocted by James Ridgeway and Jean Casella in a recent Op-Ed in The Guardian, in which they glaringly fail to identify a single person guilty of these accusations, opting instead for the consummately cowardly and slimy reliance on the "some say" strawmen tactic favored by mendacious politicians. Thus we find accusations hurled at the following, all without names, citations or even links: "many have argued . . . . progressive commentators . . . these writers – and their readers, if comments are any measure . . . they depict . . . writers and readers make the point . . . . We have also seen articles suggesting. . . . "
It's hard to overstate the intellectual dishonesty and cowardice of those who use this tactic (as always, if you defend yourself from these nameless accusations, the accusers will simply claim they didn't mean you; if you don't, the insinuation hangs over you). As a general rule: if you want to take issue with what someone has said, name them specifically and link to them (or at least cite and quote from the offending article) so that there's accountability and a way for readers to check the veracity of your claims.
This accusation is necessary to address because it's now become a popular means among Obama apologists for discrediting objections to Manning's detention (and, in the hands of some of the Internet's most bottom-scraping, Obama-revering commenters, has even morphed into a claim that the focus on Manning is racially motivated: i.e., he's white, hence the unique concern over his treatment). It's also necessary to address because this Guardian Op-Ed does link to my original article reporting on Manning's conditions -- not to necessarily suggest that I stand accused of these crimes of selective concern, but as an example of Manning's detention being "discussed, lamented and protested throughout the left-leaning blogosphere." I just want to comprehensively address this little smear one time before it proliferates further:
First, those voicing these accusations have apparently never heard of someone named "Jose Padilla," who was mercilessly tortured during the Bush years -- and psychologically destroyed -- from years of solitary confinement without being charged with a crime; back in October, 2006, I detailed the prolonged solitary confinement -- the "torture" -- to which Padilla was subjected ("The base ingredient in Mr. Padilla’s torture was stark isolation for a substantial portion of his captivity," quoting his lawyer's brief), and -- along with countless others now protesting Manning's conditions -- I denounced this treatment as "one of the most despicable and outright un-American travesties the U.S. Government has perpetrated for a long time." Indeed, I wrote endlessly about Padilla's plight, and that was roughly four years before anyone heard the name "Bradley Manning."
Second, in March, 2009, Sen. Jim Webb introduced legislation to fundamentally reform America's Prison State and prison conditions in the U.S.; I publicized that bill and hailed Webb's focus on what I called "disgustingly harsh conditions inside prisons" as "genuinely courageous and principled." Third, both before I ever heard of Manning and every time I've written about him, I've denounced prolonged isolation in general as not only inhumane, but torture. In June, 2009 -- roughly a year before I ever heard the name "Bradley Manning" -- here's what I wrote:
Prolonged solitary confinement is absolutely a form of torture, and while it's unknown whether Shalit was subjected to that, extreme isolation and prolonged solitary confinement are prominents features of America's prisoner system -- not only as part of the "War on Terror," but our domestic prison system as well.
The first time I wrote about Manning, I described the "inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation . . . at America's Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado" and reviewed the full body of literature on how solitary confinement destroys the brain. When I wrote about Manning last month, I noted that "the U.S. is one of the world's most prolific practitioners of prolonged solitary confinement" and at least 25,000 prisoners in America were subjected to it, and then wrote: "Prolonged solitary confinement is inhumane, horrendous and gratuitous even when applied to those convicted of heinous crimes." Fourth, I just finished writing a soon-to-be-released book on America's two-tiered justice system that devotes substantial attention -- including an entire long chapter -- on the way in which America's Prison State is profoundly oppressive based on race and class lines, with a focus on the inhumane conditions of imprisonment.
The notion that objections to Manning's conditions are the by-product of newly discovered concerns or are due to his privileged or celebrated status is offensive in the extreme and, worse, demonstrably false (as the above citations prove). Moreover, those of us whose work focuses on America's civil liberties abuses spend most of our time writing about the plight of ignored, forgotten, marginalized, powerless, invisible, demonized minorities (Gulet Mohamed, Maher Arar, Binyam Mohamed, Ali al-Marri, Chinese Uighurs, etc. etc.) and/or holding the world's most powerful factions accountable for systematic abuses of their authority.
It's true that high-profile cases like Manning's can bring otherwise elusive attention to general problems (Gabrielle Giffords was hardly rare in being shot by an apparently deranged person, but that episode was highly publicized and thus seized on by gun policy and mental health advocates across the board to bring attention to their positions). It's also true that the treatment of Manning raises disturbing issues not triggered by other prisoner abuse cases: namely, it's designed to enable a radical attack on press freedoms (by coercing anti-WikiLeaks testimony) and is being carried out by high-level officials in the administration of a President who ran on a platform of ending detainee abuse. And just like the death penalty in general is unjust when applied to convicted felons but worse when imposed on those convicted of no crime, subjecting someone to prolonged isolation who has been convicted of nothing and poses no danger raises additional issues not raised by doing that to a convicted felon who has proven himself a threat to others (even though they're both wrong).
But whatever else is true, the very idea that this is some sort of new, boutique concern for those objecting to the conditions of Manning's detention is a pure fabrication. What's being done to Manning is an absolute manifestation of the abuses of the National Security State, the Prison State and America's authoritarian culture that have been long protested by most of those now writing about Manning.
(4) For those in California, I'll be appearing at several events next week: on Wednesday, February 2, I'll be at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, near Los Angeles, speaking about Obama's civil liberties record; on Thursday, February 3, I'll be speaking at Berkeley during the day on "Human Rights, Civil Liberties, and the War on Terror," and that night I'll be speaking at Stanford University on "the War on WikiLeaks and why it matters"; and on Friday, February 4, I'll be speaking in Palo Alto at an event of the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center on "Civil Liberties in a Time of Endless War." I believe all events are open to the public and will post more details in a few days.
(5) I was on Lawrence O'Donnell's Last Word program last night -- its debut in the 8:00 p.m. time slot formerly occupied by Keith Olbermann -- discussing Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas' brazen politicization of their office. The segment can be seen here:
Leaving aside the extraordinary levels of dishonesty and/or denseness required to claim that the Manning controversy is about whether or not he has a pillow, the fact that an ex-Obama campaign aide and Red State diarists now sound exactly alike in mocking issues of detainee abuse and prolonged isolation says all one really needs to know about what has happened in these areas over the last two years.
On a separate note, The New York Times is now actively considering creating a system pioneered by WikiLeaks -- and recently adopted by Al Jazeera -- to allow whistleblowers to leak classified documents with full anonymity by uploading them to their site. Media executives like Bill Keller can claim all they want that they're not like WikiLeaks, but the more they copy their methods and benefit from their work, the more their actions negate those protestations.
[Finally: please note that it is Salon's excellent Art Department, and not me, who chooses and inserts the photographs that appear at the beginning of my columns; put another way, I'm not the one who decided to place a large photograph of myself at the top of this page.]